Mr Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall

The CBS News radio report continued – “And something else remarkable – border guards dancing on top of the Berlin Wall….”

In the past few years, college-aged students were dramatically shaped by 9/11, or by long wars, or the by the election of an African-American President. Earlier generations had the JFK assassination, or Vietnam and the civil rights movement, or World War II, or the Depression. Maybe today’s undergrads have not yet had that which will shape their political lives.

But for many in one generation, political maturation was shaped by the evolution of the Reagan Administration and the evolution of the Cold War – from hard-line anti-communism to deals with Gorbachev, from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to democracy in Eastern Europe – and most dramatically illustrated by the breach of the Berlin Wall.  

The first link here was seen as incredibly provocative – risking a real increase in political animosity between the Soviet Union and the West. And impossible. The President was strongly urged by his advisors not to say it. But he did. Please watch these 94 seconds.

What followed a year later was Soviet leader Gorbachev announcing to the UN a nearly complete military withdrawal from Eastern Europe. And less than one year later, the opening of the Berlin Wall. And less than one year after that, German reunification inside NATO and the EU. There are hours-long documentaries, but these short clips (5-6 minutes) will give you some idea.

What are the lessons for people whose political consciousness was formed at this time?

Ideas matter.
People matter.
American idealism and American institutions can be a force for good in the world.

We have plenty of examples where U.S. actions, even of good intentions, do not have desirable results. But this was a case – a critically important case, ending the world’s first chance of complete self-destruction – where ideas mattered, and people mattered, and American idealism and American institutions were a force for good.

Footnote: there is a fierce debate, still, about how the Cold War ended – who gets credit, and who should get credit. Gorbachev, the Germans, Marxism itself, Marxism badly executed, whatever. However you distribute the credit, though, it’s simply dishonest to say American idealism and American institutions had no role – indeed, that they did not have a leading role. A difficult consequence, though, especially when coupled with the seeming U.S. military omnipotence in Persian Gulf War 1990-1991 (and the impotence of Europe re: Yugoslavia 1991-1994), was that America could do anything – and therefore should.  This we still struggle with.

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